In honor of Tonya Williams

Tonya Williams of Charlotte is the lucky 13th child in her family. When she needed a match for her bone marrow transplant, all of her brothers and sisters were tested, and the last two brothers were matches.

Tonya was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in July of 2008 and despite undergoing treatment, a year later she learned that the cancer had progressed.  Her physician, Dr. Geoffrey Chapman, referred her to UNC. “I came to Chapel Hill and met Dr. Sarantopoulos. From day one she was so positive.”

Tonya came with Marcel, her husband and high school sweetheart, for the transplant in January of 2010, leaving their three children Ashley, Justin, and Michael behind at home.  “I wrote a letter to each of them before I came to Chapel Hill and talked with them. I told them, ‘Remember that no matter what, life never stops. Life goes on whether people leave this earth or not; life goes on.’ They really stepped up. I saw them as still being young children, but having cancer, I realized how strong they are, and how very capable they are. This experience has pulled the family closer.”

Tonya’s transplant was successful. “I didn’t have a lot of side effects. And now I come back and forth to Chapel Hill for check-ups.”

Dr. Stefanie Sarantopoulos explains, “Tonya’s cancer, transformed follicular lymphoma, is a fairly rare cancer and it is typically not curable with chemotherapy alone. Patients like Tonya are referred to us at UNC when their lymphoma requires more aggressive therapy. Since Tonya’s lymphoma was no longer responding to chemotherapy and she was otherwise young and healthy, we used strong therapy: radio-immunotherapy followed by allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Tonya won’t complain, but she has had her share of toxicities after transplant. Thankfully, these side effects, including chronic graft versus host disease have largely resolved.  Tonya’s amazing spirit and motivation to regain her health had a lot to do with how well she’s doing now. Her caregivers deserve a ton of credit, too – Marcel, who is always at her side, and her wonderful kids who continue to demonstrate exceptional maturity and empathy for their ages.

Tonya’s lymphoma is also in remission. I remember when we decided to biopsy a tiny lymph node that remained concerning after transplantation. The biopsy results were great -- no lymphoma. It was Thanksgiving and I could hear a cheer, well a roar, from her immediate and extended family. For me, it’s a privilege to share that joy.”

Tonya is grateful for her life. “I’ve always known it is a blessing to live, but when you can’t walk, can’t bathe or do anything for yourself, you really have time to sit and appreciate what are the most important things in your life. And for me, that’s my faith and my family.”  She shares her story with other patients and families. “When I returned to Chapel Hill and Family House to prepare dinner for the patients and families, one of the patients remembered me from when I had stayed there and was so happy that I had come back. She said to me, ‘Just being able to see you coming back to give back is so inspiring.’ She told me that it lifted her to the point where she thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to make it through this.’ That makes me feel good.”

Tonya knows the importance of support. “I had my wonderful family and church family surrounding me. I think it’s very important when you are a patient that you have a loving staff around you. They really do care at UNC, and it helps so much with the healing process. If you gotta have cancer, the North Carolina Cancer Hospital is the place you will want to be.”